Many Americans, just a month ago transfixed by images of desperate Afghans pushing against the gates of the Kabul airport, have moved on, their eyes flitting to new crises elsewhere.
But here in North Texas, the Taliban keep John up at night.
“John,” an Afghan transplant who asked us to disguise his name as something other than an Afghan name in order to protect his family, worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army about 10 years ago. He and his wife moved to the United States and built a new life in the past decade — the happy, frenzied life of an American family that revolves around three children.
This summer, disaster snuck up on them during a trip to Kabul to visit relatives. It took an underground network of quick-thinking Americans to evacuate John’s wife and their two youngest children. Now John must rely on the sluggish wheels of the U.S. immigration bureaucracy to rescue the rest of his family, whom he fears the Taliban will target.
John told us all his brothers and brothers-in-law have worked for the U.S. military or for American interests in Afghanistan, making them eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, or Priority 2 refugee designation. Yet a backlog in processing those visas has left John with one last tactic to save his family: humanitarian parole, which allows temporary admission to the U.S. for “urgent humanitarian reasons.”
So John is applying on behalf of his brothers, brothers-in-law and their families — more than two dozen people. But the filing fee for each person is $575, and he’s paying attorney fees, too. John, a data engineer, is the sole breadwinner at home. He said he can’t afford the tens of thousands of dollars it’ll cost to cover everyone’s applications.
“I have hardly done two of them so far,” John told us.
The Biden administration has acknowledged that it left behind a majority of Special Immigrant Visa applicants, the Afghans who worked alongside U.S. forces during our 20-year war. The least that the U.S. government can do now is waive filing fees that might expedite our allies’ journey out of a country where their lives are in danger.
For John’s family, the danger isn’t hypothetical. An attempt on John’s life that instead killed a relative was what brought him to the United States, he said. A brother who also worked for the U.S. military has eluded an attack and survived two others since 2016, including an ambush that wounded him and killed several of his colleagues, John told us.
His brothers and brothers-in-law have gone into hiding.
A dangerous escape
John’s despair has only grown since his wife and children’s harrowing escape from Kabul in August.
The couple flew to Afghanistan for the first time in years to introduce their children to grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. John returned to Texas with his oldest son, a fourth-grader, so the boy could start school and John could resume work. Then John watched in horror as the Taliban rolled into Kabul.
A friend of John’s wife knew she was still in Afghanistan and talked with Stephanie Giddens, founder of Vickery Trading Co., a Dallas nonprofit that teaches refugee women how to sew. John’s wife had worked with Giddens and graduated from the program. Giddens frantically reached out to her contacts for help.
One was Anthony Applegate of Frisco, a family friend and a former Army Special Forces commander who served in Afghanistan. His wife got a text from Giddens one Sunday morning while the couple sat in church. He stepped out and called Giddens.
“We fought and shed blood beside each other,” Applegate said about the Afghans who served with American troops. “It is a very personal issue for myself and a lot of other veterans.”
Giddens’ friends pinged their friends, and those people pinged their contacts, eventually reaching people on the ground and others who knew how to help John’s wife and children navigate routes to different airport gates. In Texas, John was receiving automated messages from the U.S. embassy instructing his family to go to the airport at specific times.
Just getting to the edge of the airport every day was an odyssey. John said his wife and a male relative left her family home every day in the middle of the night, baby and toddler in tow. Invisible under a burqa, she flashed her U.S. passport at Taliban checkpoints. But the crowds around the airport were too thick to get near a gate.
It took a full week and a network of more than 15 people who played roles big and small to get John’s wife and children — all three U.S. citizens — out of Kabul and on flights to Bahrain and Washington, D.C., where John reunited with his family.
“We were still working around the clock to try to get the rest of the family out,” Giddens said. “We couldn’t do it.”
Giddens is now coordinating a team of volunteers to help the Afghan families of a dozen associates and graduates of Vickery Trading Co. gather immigration paperwork. She said their relatives worked for the Americans.
But even if the U.S. government acts on their applications, no one seems to know how any of them will actually escape Afghanistan. American immigration officials said Afghans may be asked to report to a U.S. embassy in another country for a screening, yet news reports indicate the Taliban will allow only people with visas or other valid travel documents to exit the country.
“They are stuck there, and I know a bunch of other families that are in similar situations,” John told us. “They are stuck there. There is no hope for them. There are no commercial flights. Borders are closed. We don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Still, John is scrounging and approaching friends for help with parole application fees.
This can’t be how the U.S. government treats its friends, the people who tied their lives to our cause at great risk to them. The Biden White House and Congress must cut the red tape and waive visa and parole application fees for our Afghan allies. They must secure these families’ safe passage out of Afghanistan. We cannot avert our eyes.